ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And welcome to the Washington Week Podcast. Our discussion this week is a return to my home state of Pennsylvania, which is a critical battleground in the midterm elections.
And it’s a conversation with one of the state’s legendary journalists and one of the nation’s best: Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman. David is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and he’s been a friend of Washington Week for many years. David, welcome, and thanks so much for joining us here tonight.
DAVID SHRIBMAN: It’s great to be at a Washington Week reunion.
MR. COSTA: It’s a reunion for sure. And, David, Pennsylvania – where you live, where I grew up – it went for President Trump in 2016, and much of that victory can be credited to the voters near you in the Pittsburgh region. I vividly remember driving around western Pennsylvania in towns like Aliquippa for The Washington Post back then and seeing Trump sign after Trump sign after Trump sign in the industrial areas, the hilly villages, and rural nooks of the state everywhere. The Trump signs were just up on those lawns. And I went back to my editors the week before the election and said western PA is Trump country and we’ve got to pay attention to that. President Trump was just back there, in Erie to the north, just a couple weeks ago.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And what does it mean for you? Jobs, jobs, very simple. What does it mean for our country? What does it mean for our country? We can’t lose the steel industry. The steel industry was on its last legs. And now, after four months of really intensely doing what I do – (cheers) – it’s thriving. It is thriving.
MR. COSTA: David, the president talked about those steelworkers in Pennsylvania two years on after he won them over in 2016, many of them at least. Where are they? Are they going to turn out in the midterm elections? Do they like the president’s trade war with China?
MR. SHRIBMAN: Well, Bob, a lot of those signs you saw in Aliquippa and Greene County and along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, they’re still there, and some of them are fresh. And many of those signs are saying thank you for – thank you, Mr. President, about coal and about steel. And as you know, there’s very little steel produced here in the steel city, home of the Steelers, but there’s a huge kind of discomfort here because the workers – steelworkers and their families and their – and their legacy families – really appreciate the president’s views on tariffs. At the same time, steelworkers officials, union officials, are uncomfortable with Trump and many of his other policies. So it’s a little bit of discomfort, but generally speaking I think that people from the steel valley and in steel families support the president, they have done so, and will do so again in early November.
MR. COSTA: But to what extent does President Trump’s support in the state, in the western part of the state, carry over to Republican candidates? You think about Congressman Lou Barletta, running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Bob Casey. Barletta’s really struggling, behind in the polls. Is that just because Casey’s a powerhouse in the state with a big name, or is it because President Trump’s – his policies, his persona doesn’t trickle down?
MR. SHRIBMAN: I just watched in the last hour the debate, actually, between those two, and I don’t think anyone would describe Bob Casey as a powerhouse kind of a figure. He’s kind of a laconic figure, almost Jesuitical. He did go to Holy Cross. He is contemplative. He’s not bombastic. Lou Barletta was there. He was – tried to go on the attack, but really these were two really kind of milquetoast candidates. Barletta is trying to use the – get some of the Trump fairy dust; it’s not really working. He’s very, very far behind, and the Republicans nationally are not supporting him because they know it’s basically a lost race.
MR. COSTA: Pennsylvania has a real issue with opioid abuse. You hear a lot about health care, preexisting conditions, opioid abuse across the country as issues. What’s it like in Pennsylvania?
MR. SHRIBMAN: Well, of course, one of the – one of the great areas – not so great, actually, but one of the most significant areas is here in western Pennsylvania. Our paper has done an enormous amount of work on this. This came up in that – in that Barletta –
MR. COSTA: – Casey debate.
MR. SHRIBMAN: – debate not so long ago, and you hear a little bit of talk about opioids across the state – across the state in the eastern part of the state. Even Republicans are talking about what they’re doing on this. It’s a big, big issue here. We’ve had an enormous amount of deaths. The president has spoken about it. I think that’s something people are concerned about.
But you also mentioned, Robert, preexisting conditions. I was really intrigued the way Lou Barletta went in this debate this evening just out of his way to say preexisting conditions, they need to be preserved. And I think you talked about it earlier in Washington Week that this is really a main theme now of Republicans across the country.
MR. COSTA: Because they see the Democrats are getting some traction on the issue. And you look at the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania, the incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf running ahead of the Republican Scott Wagner. It’s similar to what’s happening – what we see in the polls in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan. Those industrial, Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic states –
MR. SHRIBMAN: That all went from Trump.
MR. COSTA: All went for Trump. Now seem to be, at least at the gubernatorial contests, veering back toward the Democrats.
MR. SHRIBMAN: Yes. Now, Tom Wolf, who really – he’s the sort of fellow who kind of makes Bob Casey look exciting. He’s doing very, very well. He’ll win probably in a landslide. It’s – he’ll get a second term, as most Pennsylvania Democrats do. He’s done very, very well. He’s talking an enormous amount about opioids. And I think he’s really struck a chord.
MR. COSTA: Senator Casey, you say he’s not a powerhouse personalitywise. And that’s –
MR. SHRIBMAN: But he’s from a powerhouse family.
MR. COSTA: Powerhouse family. And he also does not support abortion rights in the same way many Democrats support abortion rights. Has that cultural position Casey has on social issues, has that played any role in this contest at all, especially with the Kavanaugh nomination and confirmation on the Supreme Court?
MR. SHRIBMAN: You know, I don’t think it’s played any role at all, because people in this state – as you know, having grown up here – are accustomed to having a Bob Casey, his father, be against abortion rights. And so this is really a continuation of a long, long theme here. Bob – the senior Bob Casey ran I think four times for governor. People understand this. They know that this is part of the Casey package. They respect it because they respect any deviation from the mean that seems to come from conscience, which we know it does in the Casey family. And so I don’t think there’s been any controversy whatsoever. Nor have Democrats run away from him traditionally, when he was auditor general, or now as going for his third term in the Senate. It’s just part of the Casey package.
MR. COSTA: You know better than anyone, David, that Pittsburgh – it is known as the steel city, but there’s so much more going on in Pittsburgh. It’s a tech hub now. It’s a great city for universities and education. And when you think about the kind of voters who now live in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and in Pittsburgh itself, they’re similar to who live in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia suburbs. These are educated professionals. What do they think in the Pittsburgh suburbs about President Trump? Are they alarmed enough to really cause a blue wave in some of these suburban districts?
MR. SHRIBMAN: Well, some of them are. And the more liberal-oriented ones, like Mount Lebanon, they are so. But in the less-liberal areas, like Upper St. Clair – these are two of the more prominent suburbs of Pittsburgh – they’re far less opposed to the president. So it’s a balancing act there. But if you go into the city, the city has a nine-to-one Democratic enrollment edge. And that’s really where the Democrats are going to really do very, very well.
MR. COSTA: And the state – Pennsylvania doesn’t have a woman representing them as any part of the congressional delegation. Yet, there are many women now running across the state for different offices.
MR. SHRIBMAN: In fact, there are 128 women running state – across the state – not statewide, but across the state for offices. By my count, there’s only been two women who won statewide offices. The last time we had one of those kind of year of the women was 1972. Lynn Yeakel did not win the race that year. I think there may not be a big year for women candidates – although more than usual – but it will be a big year for women voters. And I think there’s a slight nuance there, but I think this could be the year of the women 2.0, but in a different kind of emphasis than year of the women 1.0.
MR. COSTA: And on election night, David, where are you going to be and what are you really looking for in Pennsylvania?
MR. SHRIBMAN: Well, I will have had three slices of pizza, I’ll be at my desk. And I’m looking to see whether the – in a swing state, there will continue to be a Republican domination of the congressional delegation. Thirteen of 18 seats, under the old apportionment, went to the Republicans. And yet, this was regarded as a swing state. I think there may be – they may do a little less well. Nine districts now lean pretty much Democratic, five lean Republican, and the rest are pretty much undecided. So I think it may – it may kind of have a new kind of equilibrium.
MR. COSTA: But, David, you said you’re going to have three slices of pizza. I thought – isn’t Pittsburgh the city where you get french fries on a sandwich? Isn’t that –
MR. SHRIBMAN: Yeah, but not french fries on the pizza. I just came from the office and we just had some pizza, and there were no french fries to be seen.
MR. COSTA: Well, in the Bucks County area, where I grew up, we have cheesesteaks. You guys can keep the pizza and the fries on the sandwiches. But we got to get together in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia area soon, all right?
MR. SHRIBMAN: OK. Well, I look forward to it. Thank you, Robert.
MR. COSTA: And thank you for joining us, David. It’s a real pleasure to have you here. We hope to see you at the table again soon.
And thank you all for joining us here on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find us on your favorite podcast app, on the Washington Week website, or on YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.